Health unions’ constitutional challenge bound for Supreme Court of Canada

News release

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Unions representing nearly 100,000 health care workers say their constitutional challenge to the Campbell Liberal government’s contract-breaking legislation is headed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Court of Appeal for British Columbia today dismissed an appeal by the Hospital Employees’ Union, the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union and the B.C. Nurses’ Union to an earlier decision by the Supreme Court of B.C.

The unions says they’ll be studying today’s Court of Appeal decision carefully but remain committed to a long-term constitutional challenge to Bill 29 — the Health and Social Services Delivery Act — which has resulted in thousands of job losses, dozens of health facility closures and unprecedented privatization of health services.

HEU secretary-business manager Chris Allnutt says that it’s likely that the unions will seek leave to appeal today’s decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Bill 29 was just the start of a legislative juggernaut that has been used to undermine the fundamental rights of working people,” says Allnutt. “It’s caused chaos in our health care system and deprived thousands of workers of their livelihood.

“Right from the start we knew this would be a lengthy legal battle that would likely end up in the highest court of the land whatever the outcome at the Court of Appeal.”

Allnutt says that the Court of Appeal acknowledged today that the substantial constitutional questions raised by the unions are best left to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Campbell’s legislative attack on workers has implications for workers’ rights and the legal status of collective agreements right across the country,” says Allnutt. “As a result, I expect that there will be substantial interest from unions and other groups from outside B.C. in our ongoing constitutional challenge.”

BCGEU president George Heyman says that the court case is about the constitutional and human rights of workers and the importance of freely negotiated collective agreements.

“These are critically important principles that must be heard by the Supreme Court,” says Heyman.

“Bill 29 was a fundamental cause of the recent health facilities strike where the Campbell Liberal government used its legislative powers to strip employment protection from health care workers.”

BCNU president Debra McPherson says: “This legislation is vicious and discriminatory toward women workers who had managed to improve their wages and working conditions after many years of effort and sacrifice working within the law.

“With one stroke of the legislative pen, the BC Liberal government used Bill 29 to attack the most fundamental rights of women to belong to unions and to work in jobs that provide decent pay and a decent standard of living. For Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses, Bill 29 has meant the loss of training opportunities, it has restricted our ability to move into new jobs, and it has allowed health employers to layoff hundreds of RNs and RPNs, thereby denying to patients access to their valuable skills and experience in providing care.”

The unions launched their constitutional challenge to Bill 29 in March, 2002. In September, 2003 the Supreme Court of B.C. dismissed the unions’ case.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeal of British Columbia heard the unions’ appeal in May, 2004. The unions are arguing that Bill 29 violates the equality rights and freedom of association provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Bill 29 was brought in by the Campbell Liberal government in January, 2002 despite a pre-election promise by the premier to respect union collective agreements. The legislation eliminated key contract provisions like protections against contracting out, seniority rights and labour adjustment programs.

The unions’ legal counsel is Joe Arvay — a noted constitutional lawyer based in Victoria and Vancouver.

-30- Contact: Mike Old, communications director, HEU, 604-828-6771 (cell) Art Moses, communications coordinator, BCNU, 604-868-4259 (cell) Brian Gardiner, communications officer, BCGEU, 604-291-9611

Click the links below for more background information.

2004 BCCA 377 Health Services and Support-Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. British Columbia

B.C. Supreme Court Judgment

September 11, 2003 News Release: Unions intend to appeal B.C. Supreme Court judgment on contract-breaking law

April 2003 News Release: B.C. Supreme Court to hear unions’ Bill 29 Charter of Rights suit starting April 14

March 2002 News Release: Unions launch Charter of Rights suit against B.C. government to defend health workers, Medicare